North Wales has a special place in my heart, as it's where my family and I went on holiday when I was growing up just over the border in Chester, England. It's a land packed with history, giving the lush rolling hills a magical presence and the lakes a depth beyond their rippling tops.
This is a place of giants, dragons, gnomes, and sea monsters, or so the folktales go. The legend of King Arthur is the one that most people know, but I grew up with the tale of Gelert, and it's his grave I've come to see. As a child, I cried when I was told of the faithful hound who protected his master's baby from a wolf, only to be mistakenly killed by his owner, Prince Llywelyn, who thought Gelert was the culprit. Gelert's grave can be found in the small Welsh village of Beddgelert, pronounced beth-gel-airt, situated in the Snowdonia National Park, only 10 kilometres south of the summit of Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales at 1,085 metres.
There is some controversy over the legitimacy of the gravesite and the subsequent naming of the village, but as the sun shines through the trees in this extraordinary picturesque place, my romantic heart is happy to believe.
When you first enter Beddgelert, it's as if you've gone back in time, or perhaps set foot on a Game of Thrones set with its dark stone houses, twisting streets, sweeping mountain backdrop, and gnarled trees overhanging babbling brooks. In the centre of the village, a bridge crosses the River Colwyn, and you can hear the splash of children taking a dip in its meandering waters and cheers from the enterprising pubs that have added riverside patio gardens.
Following the signs to Gelert's Grave, you pass St. Mary's Church, which is built on the site of a 13th-century Augustinian Priory. It's a striking part of the landscape, with its medieval triple lancet windows and transept arches.
Behind it, dark slate walls cut the hillside in crooked weaving patterns, first built by hands long gone. The quietness of the grave is suddenly broken by a cheery toot as the Welsh Highland Railway passes through. Over 150 years old, the steam-powered carriages wind their way from the sea into the mountains covering 40 km from Caernarfon, past the foot of Snowdon, through Beddgelert and the Aberglasyn Pass, before finishing in Porthmadog. This is an accessible and exciting way to explore this area of Wale, as it rolls through the countryside, at times clinging precariously to the mountainside.
It's definitely worth heading into The Saracens Head pub and hotel for a pint of local cask ale and a hearty Sunday roast. The walls are filled with old black and white photos giving you a glimpse into Beddgelert's past. One of them is of the Royal Goat Hotel, which was built back in 1802 by Thomas Jones. The manager of the hotel, David Pritchard was a savvy marketer and leveraged the story of Gelert to attract tourists to the area. It was Pritchard who put the present monument in place (hence the controversy), and people flocked to see it, including Casablanca star Ingrid Bergman who stayed at the hotel while filming The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
Talking of famous people, from 1956 Beddgelert was the home of Alfred Edmeades Bestall, the illustrator of the famous Rupert Bear stories. I can't help but think of him sitting in the meadows surrounded by the wildflowers and mountains quietly sketching a character that would capture the hearts of millions.
Dominating the view west from Beddgelert is the pointed summit of Moel Hebog, which is Welsh for "Bare Hill of the Hawk." There's a hike that goes up from Beddgelert to the summit; it takes around five hours to cover the 12-km loop. As you walk above the Beddgelert Forest look out for red kites and Peregrine falcons, hovering in the air. If it's a clear day, you'll be able to see the outline of the coast from the summit, along with the Nantlle Ridge to the north, and Snowdon directly across the valley. After a day of hiking, we decided to head to the lake at nearby Llyn Gwynant Campsite for a dip. There's a large rock shaped like an elephant on one side if you're brave enough for a jump, canoes, and kayaks for rent, and even a wood-fired pizza stall for an al fresco dinner.
Beddgelert is a beautiful and romantic place from which to explore Snowdonia and the rest of North Wales. After a weekend there we'd only just scratched the surface of what's on offer.